What does it mean to be an afterthought?
This is the question I had in mind on my way to the Brooklyn Liberation march for Black trans lives this past Sunday. This action came just one day after new information was revealed about the death of Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco. Layleen was only 27 when she died. She was a part of the New York ballroom scene. She was both a daughter in the House of Xtravaganza, as well as a house mother to one of her childhood friends, and was known for her open heart and for the care and support she provided other transwomen as they made their ways through life. After being arrested on charges of prostitution she was placed in solitary confinement where she was denied medical care by prison staff, who, as the new video footage revealed, could be heard laughing at her in her final moments, and subsequently died of an epileptic seizure. Seeing clear evidence of the severity of the neglect she encountered while incarcerated came as a significant blow to those still processing her transition, in addition to the more recent deaths of Nina Pop, Dominique Rem’mie Fells, Riah Milton, Tony McDade, and too many others. It was yet another reminder of how so much of the abuse we face as Black people is characterized by apathy, and the many ways our pain fails to register in a climate of antiblackness. One of the reasons I believe in protest and continue to go to them despite the obvious dangers I face as a Black woman by showing up, is that they are a powerful form of care work that counters this apathy: for the community they serve as a forum for collective grieving and as an outlet for our rage, and for the dead they serve as a means of remembering and celebrating their lives in a deliberate challenge to the violent indifference of the state. For Black trans people however, encounters with this form of violence are twofold: they occur both at the state level, as well as within the Black community itself through interactions with cis Black people still clinging to the illusions of power cis hetero-patriarchy provides. Where police and prisons are concerned, cities all over the world are slowly coming to the agreement that they need to go. But in light of how many trans lives we have lost to intracommunal violence, cis people must ask themselves: while we are out here fighting for our lives, what are we doing to ensure we are not going home simply reenact the violence of the prison in our own communities?
Many Black leftist spaces historically have struggled with intersectionality, and the extensive documentation of the violent acts of misogynoir, transphobia, and homophobia that occurred within them, including some of the most radical of groups such as the Black Panthers, are well know. It must be noted as well that Black cis men are not the only ones unwilling to take up trans liberation as part of their struggle. Black cis women, like those who participated in the assault of Iyanna Dior that occurred in Minneapolis just days after the start of the riots, are just as capable of becoming perpetrators of transphobic violence. These same cis men and women that would not hesitate to jump a 21 year old transwoman over a fender bender are now showing up for protests, tagging every post on all their socials with #BlackLivesMatter, and demanding their cities defund the police, all while allowing those most likely to be harassed, beaten, arrested, or killed by police to continue to die. What these contradictory behaviors reveal, is that many do not understand the abolitionist cause as the radical stance that it is. To abolish police is to abolish all systems of oppression that enable policing, including those that afford cis people access to proximity to power. Many are not ready or willing to part with that “power.” Instead of committing to principled struggle, they choose instead to reposition themselves so that the laws of this world work for them the same way they do for white people. But because one of the defining characteristics of the white world is the uneven distribution of power, in order for one group of people to be free, another group must be subjugated. Transphobia is the system by which trans people are marked as the bearers of this subjugation for their failure to conform to the demands of cis-heteropatriarchy. The impulse here to me is carceral in nature, and represents a desire to punish those whose “crime” was to threaten the logic of a system that assumes the value of an individual is reducible to simple biology. And while I do not have all the answers for how these people should be dealt with, I know that I am tired of what feel like the everyday announcements of yet another Black trans life cut short. Transphobia is lethal and anyone who espouses such dangerous bio-essentialist ideologies has no place in the movement for Black liberation. By writing this I do not mean to suggest that radicalization through political education is not a possibility – in fact I am actually excited about the new pedagogies being introduced into the movement and their potential to reach a wider audience than ever via social media. And further I am immensely motivated by all the Black trans, queer, and non-binary folk across all generations who I witnessed at Sunday’s protest leading chants, jumping over barricades, vogueing, handing out water, snacks, hand sanitizer, and other resources to their comrades with more urgency and effectiveness than either Governor Cuomo or Mayor de Blasio have displayed over the course of this entire pandemic, and simply being present in the moment as we marched down the Eastern Parkway with the words of trans organizer Raquel Willis resonating in our hearts and minds: “I believe in my power, I believe in your power, I believe in our power, I believe in Black trans power.” I believe in that mantra and I believe that ultimately, we will win. The now worldwide uprising that Minneapolis sparked has created a new terrain of possibility, and the fact that abolitionist ideas, once considered unrealistic and extremist, are now able to enter into the mainstream, is proof of this. Now, however, we have arrived at the point where we if we want this momentum to continue, we must apply the logic of abolition to the movement itself.
We can no longer afford to march for Black men at the same time as we are mourning for Black trans, queer, and non-binary folk who have been killed by Black men. We can no longer afford to put ourselves on the front lines only to be met with threats of violence from the very people we want to protect. We cannot be expected to chant George Floyd’s name in the streets if we are going to be shamed for daring to even whisper our own. Taking abolition seriously means that we must acknowledge that at its core, it is Black feminist theory: it is intersectional by necessity and it understands that policing, like all forms of oppression, can only be dismantled successfully if we take it apart at it’s root. And if the police and the prison industrial complex are rooted ideologically in white supremacy, misogynoir, transphobia, homophobia, capitalism, and xenophobia, then to create the world we want, all these systems of exploitation must go with them. To end this piece I would like to share a word from Dr. Angela Davis from a recent Dream Defenders “Sunday School” event. As we move forward, let her words serve as a reminder of who we are here for, the potential of this moment, and the work still left to do.
“The kind of feminism I’m referring to does not respect the binary structure of gender…if we want to develop an intersectional perspective, the trans community is showing us the way…And I don’t think we would be where we are today encouraging ever larger numbers of people to think within an abolitionist frame had the trans community not taught us that it is possible to effectively challenge that which is considered the very foundation of our sense of normalcy. So if it is possible to challenge the gender binary then we can certainly effectively resist prisons, jails, and police.”